Image 1. Camille Henrot, Office of unreplied emails (2016-17). Exhibition detail.

How often is the internet featured in artistic works? Are our modern means of communicating and building community via Instagram, Twitter, email, featured in art-making, and if so, how?  It’s refreshing and also the beginning of a much needed exploration to see how the current exhibition at LASALLE’s Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, entitled ‘Dissolving Margins’, curated by Melanie Pocock, attempts to address this very large issue. 

I was very much taken by U.S. artist Camille Henrot’s work, Office of unreplied emails(2016-17) (Image 1), in which fiction and the real, textual and visual art practices are interwoven in an arresting piece of artwork. 

In this intriguing work, shown at the Berlin Biennale in 2016 and then subsequently at the Palais de Tokyo, Henrot replies to hundreds of spam emails she’d received and collected (e.g. an email inviting her to apply for a new credit card or advertising cleaning services) with imaginary responses that are at turns whimsical, and at others romantic and contemplative (see Image 2 for detail). 

Image 2. Camille Henrot, Office of unreplied emails, 2016-17 (exhibition detail). 

Henrot printed the emails as oversized canvasses while their replies are printed in beautiful cursive font on two different types of paper, overlaid on top of each other, as a kind of palimpsest, making the text sometimes difficult to read. They are strewn across the gallery floor and also looped on poles as an installation, further obfuscating our ability to read some of the messages, and the size of this entire work communicates also the flooding of our time and attention by spam emails in our internet-driven lives. 

There are a few things I want to say about this imaginative work. First, Henrot gives every spam email collected (considered waste, connoting the idea of internet pollution) the kind of time and attention one gives to correspondence in old-fashioned bygone days, performing a diachronic assessment and juxtaposition of decades of difference.Second, the fictive aspect. The imaginary responses, which Henrot never sent, bridge two worlds of many kinds: reality and fiction, virtual and physical, specificity with the illimitable. Henrot deliberately creates a virtual dreamspace where thoughts and wishes reside. Indeed, in perusing some of the texts, questions arise as to how spam emails are generated: what exactly is the authorship, are they written by a person or a bot? As one example, Henrot responds to an ad about cleaning services with a ruminative and wistful post about rain streaming down her window and the collars of her coat. Imagining the responses of these recipients if the emails had actually been sent also occupies a narrative trajectory from the sad/pitiful/pathetic to the ridiculous/funny/absurd. Henrot’s responses offer windows of intimacy into her personal life belied by the impersonality and dehumanising effect of spam emails. 

Further, the emails collectively stitch up a story, and as a matter of form, we are used to stories contained in certain formats, and yet, this story strikes me as illimitable – a book is something one can read from cover to cover and declare that one has indeed read every word – this by contrast is impossible to get to the bottom of. The text here is boundless.

The exhibition catalogue states that the theme ‘dissolving margins’ is inspired by fiction, bestselling fiction in fact – Elena Ferrante’s novel My Brilliant Friend (2011). It cites specifically one of the novel’s protagonists, Raffaela Cerullo, experiencing a kind of psychosomatic blurring of the margin between self and her surroundings. This, to me, seems to be an apt vantage point upon which to reflect on the psychosomatic experiences one has when viewing the extraordinary artworks in this exhibition. In Henrot’s work, indeed one of the questions posed for us in our internet-saturated world is where is the self located at any given point in time and given the nature of parallel realities? When I post a picture of myself at an event somewhere in the city sometime in the past on Instagram, I am simultaneously in the city, on Instagram and also sitting holding up my phone.  

Image 3. Darius Ou, Autotypography (2012-13). Installation view.

         Darius Ou’s work, Autotypography(2012-13) (Image 3) features 365 posters the artist created daily in the course of a year. Presented roughly in chronological order, it draws upon his graphic design background to pose questions about the various techniques used in ‘ugly’ designs: as the catalog attests, “misalignment of images and text (see image 4), incorrect visualisations of dimensions, and the stretching of text to the point of illegibility.” 

Image 4. Darius Ou, Autotypography (exhibition detail). 

One of the interesting issues posed repeatedly in each work in this exhibition is how we read text and the visual, what expectations we bring to our exercise of reading.  Interestingly, design posters are often seen as part of an advertising machine, and our eye passes over them, sees but may not register, often rejecting cognitively what we see (these are ad graffiti on public walls, ‘eyesores’). Yet, here, Autotypography is a breathtaking panorama of diversity and plurality – styles, fonts, colours, messages, designs, one without an overriding aesthetic. The messages on them are playful and witty, telling an alternate story, one that bounds in from the peripheries of consciousness. See for example, the poster below with its quizzical question (Image 5).

Image 5. Darius Ou, Autotypography (2012-13). Exhibition detail.

Image 6. Eng Kai Er, Compressible Sentiments (2018).
Video Still. 
      Humour often works its way into these works; it’s interesting to note this congruence in the textual. Individual words and their semantical meanings aren’t just symbols, they operate on the Roland Barthes’ level of signage to offer an auratic texture to augment the works. 
In Eng Kai Er’s humorous Compressible Sentiments (2018) (Images 6 -8), Eng draws upon her experience as a dancer and choreographer and dons an inflatable Jurassic World T-Rex costume (widely available on shopping channels and frequently deployed as a Halloween costume) (Image 8), while flopping about in Singapore’s alleyways, shop walkways, and food courts.  The effect is mock-serious and incongruous, as we observe patrons of the food court staring at her while walking past, their facial expressions priceless in their incomprehension.

 Eng also dresses up in a ballet costume (Image 6), as well as cross-dresses as a man in Chaplinesque get-up (Image 7), and her dance moves are haplessly ungraceful yet mesmerising. These choreographed moments appear off-the-cuff, yet they blur the division between private and public activities, male and female, and the psychosocial boundaries of the hysterical, the humorous, the playful, the intentional, the serious, the notorious, and the commercial. 
Image 7. Eng Kai Er. Compressible Sentiments (2018).
Video Still. 

Image 8. Eng Kai Er, Compressible Sentiments (2018). Inflatable T-rex video still. 

I loved also James T. Hong’s video quartet installation, entitled somewhat tongue-in-cheek,Nietzsche reincarnated as a Chinese woman and their shared lives (2016–18) (Images 9, 10). A philosophical Zen consciousness pervades the work, even as it slips into the territory of what Italo Calvino would call the theatre of the absurd. Presented as a four channel floor-sized video projection, a Chinese woman intones in a ponderous voice many Nietzschean quotes in Mandarin, with a simultaneous transcription in English, subtitling the images that we see on screen as a kind of documentary film that reimagines Nietzsche reincarnated in many different lives — as a worm, as a rat, as a dismembered bovine, and not least, as a Chinese woman. The affect draws upon our experience of watching movies in translation, where we ‘read’ the movie, as well as see it, a kind of mental manoeuvre that I often realise makes me unable to give either the film’s images or the text my full attention, thus slippage necessarily occurs.

Hong further complicates this work with the Chinese translations from English, which in itself is a translation of Nietzsche’s words from German. Thus, I find myself caught in all the spaces where the meaning and significance waffle along with the flipping of gender, race, language, Eastern and Western cultural values. The video images (picturing empty concert halls, Chinese urban scenery, Chinese hu-tongs devoid of pedestrians, a dead rat floating on water, worms or single cell organisms, hillside cemeteries speaking not only to the metaphysics of death, but also to the weight and burden of tradition) project a definite melancholy. The sonorous violin score accompanying the video projection — a sampling of Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlos (1867), exploit the psychosomatic line between the surreal and the existential to trigger a hypnotic, anxiety-ridden reflection of Nietzsche’s misanthropic text.

Image 9. James T. Hong. Nietzsche reincarnated as a Chinese woman and their shared lives (2016-18). Video installation still.

Image 10. Nietzsche reincarnated as a Chinese woman and their shared lives (2016-18). Video installation still.

The last work in this exhibition is U.S. artist Tara Kelton’s Still Life with a Curtain (2015) (Images 11,13-14), which involves an intriguing two-step process where Kelton sought out online workers, presented them with digital images of famous Cezanne paintings and paid them to write ‘artistic texts’ about the images. Translation then occurs from image-to-text and text-to-image when she hired 3D visualisation studios in Bengaluru, India (implicating immediately the ‘outsourcing’ economy of global corporatism), to create digital simulations of these texts. Here’s one result.

Image 11. Tara Kelton, Still Life with a Curtain (2015). 3D simulation from Bengaluru studios. Exhibition Detail. 

The work chooses not to reveal the original Cezanne image provided other than its titular reference (see image 12 for one of the original Cezannes), and while highlighting the effect of translation from the textual to the visual and its reverse, our comparison of the simulated image with the original Cezanne happens offstage, once again foregrounding the psychosomatic traversing of the barriers of present versus hidden, actual versus mental processes.

It is an interesting exercise comparing the textual description to the simulation rendered (compare Images 13 and 14, for example) and it takes a constant going back and forth between text and image, as if the audience were the editor or inspector, performing a ‘checking’ role, and once again, ‘reading’ a painting rather than seeing it.  

This exhibition provides a fascinating study into the act of narration and the processes of translation, transcription and the bleeding of borders between the visual and the textual, as well as the forms they come in or are packaged as. 

Image 13. Tara Kelton, Still Life with A Curtain (2015). Exhibition detail.

Image 14. Tara Kelton, Still Life with A Curtain (2015). Sample of text written by online workers describing Image 13.  Exhibition detail.

NB: ‘Dissolving Margins’ is on show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore until January 22, 2019 (closed for Christmas period from Dec 22 to Jan 1). Don’t miss it if you have a chance to see it.